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Kasia Anderson on Barbara Walters

Posted on Aug 1, 2008
book cover

By Kasia Anderson

(Page 4)

So, let’s set the record straight here. Journalists like Barbara Walters are entertainers. Barbara Walters may be more than the sum of her plum jobs and “big gets,” but she’s a celebrity, even if she treats them as a separate class in her book. Anyone who receives giggly personal notes from her Bel Air neighbor, Nancy Reagan, about borrowing cups of sugar is either really rich or really famous, and Walters is both. Barbara Walters’ memoir is thus a celebrity memoir. A 624-page celebrity memoir just might hold a lot of celeb secrets, so many people are liable to buy it (sorry, sister, but it’s not your sublime prose that does the trick). This, more than anything else, explains its major success. As a celebrity, Barbara Walters has a formidable publicity team, which, like the publicity teams of other major celebrities, has the ability to generate major buzz for Walters’ major memoir. Don’t buy it? Try writing a potentially unflattering story about Walters in a passably prominent publication and get ready for a fun phone call, or 10, from ABC’s PR SWAT team.

Full disclosure: I once received about five such calls from ABC. In the spirit of autobiographical revelation, let me break into first-person mode for a brief interlude. In 2002, I was working as a reporter for a gossip column at the New York Daily News. Like several of my colleagues at the paper, I started out as a cub reporter on the gossip beat, briefly working as an adjunct member of the “celebrity-industrial complex,” as Maureen Orth branded it in “The Importance of Being Famous.” In gossip, anything that could happen on other beats, and a lot of things that couldn’t, was guaranteed to happen.

During my training at the column, I was assigned to find out whether ABC reps had a response to a story, not about Walters but about another of their big stars, that didn’t demonstrate the best professional judgment on said star’s part. Over the next few hours, I was alternately yelled at, pleaded with, leveled with “journalist to journalist” and otherwise given a crash course in crisis communications by the head of ABC’s PR department. Meanwhile, our source, who claimed he’d incurred minor personal property damage in the alleged incident, called excitedly to report that ABC was also contacting him, making unrefusable offers to compensate for his trouble. Those people don’t mess around when it comes to their top celebrities—such as Barbara Walters.

This is not meant to be a blanket dismissal of the intrinsic worth of Walters’ life story or that of anyone else who happens to be famous. It’s also not an argument for stars to somehow step outside of the contexts that formed them to issue poignant social commentaries about stardom and consumer culture; that would be something like expecting Howard Stern to lead a feminist consciousness-raising session on his radio show. Nor is it a retread of Neil Postman’s lament about “amusing ourselves to death.” While it’s valid to point out that coverage of celebrities has become a highly contagious rash on news programs and publications of all kinds in the U.S. and abroad, that argument has been made already. Also, it doesn’t leave room for what communication scholars call “negotiated” readings of a text—or to paraphrase, the idea that all viewers don’t interact with every media product the same way, passively absorbing messages without any wiggle room for creativity or skepticism.

At one point in “Audition,” Walters describes a formula she uses to case out an unfamiliar country while traveling: “My theory has always been: show me a department store and I’ll show you how people live.” I would submit a slightly modified version by way of a conclusion: Show me a local celebrity and I’ll show you what people value. A perceptive fellow named Leo Lowenthal pursued a similar line of thinking about 70 years ago by conducting a content analysis of biographies published in popular magazines over the first few decades of the 20th century. He found that, increasingly, the people those publications found to be worth profiling were not “idols of production” who became renowned for discovering, or uncovering, or doing things in “serious” professions like engineering, aviation, education, or medicine. Rather, they were “idols of consumption” who epitomized a life of leisure and taught readers by lived example how to become good consumers. Highly alarmed by these developments, Lowenthal said his findings represented “the first stages of the greatest crisis since the birth of the Union” (i.e., the eventual creation of a nation of automatons obsessed with consumption).

Lowenthal’s dim assessment can seem hard to contest, especially when watching local or national TV newscasts and clocking the amount of time devoted to, say, stories about the Iraq war versus celebrity “news.” Mass media hysteria aside, though, celebrities are here to stay, and there are more of them than ever—ignore them at your own peril. Not only is the line between celebrity and journalism becoming very blurry, but so is the line between celebrity and politics. (Don’t buy it? Try calling your local representative in Washington as a regular citizen with a serious concern you’d like addressed. Now make a similar call but say you have Bono holding on the line.) For this reason and many others, rejecting celebrity as a concept worthy of any serious consideration is not always productive; nor is refusing to truck with consumer culture. Righteous indignation can be galvanizing, but where and how exactly would one live totally apart from all this?

Any change that happens on these fronts probably won’t come from big media or big stars themselves—except for the Angelina or Bono variety, to an extent. Expecting stars of any species to go away or to save the world is absurd, as their primary function is to continue being celebrated and bringing in the money for themselves and the throngs of orbiting handlers and hangers-on who rely on them. For newsmakers like Barbara Walters, it doesn’t pay to stray too far from the script. And besides, there’s an army of stylists, agents, producers and publicists always at the ready to make sure they never do.

Kasia Anderson has a master’s degree from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and has been a Web journalist in San Francisco and an entertainment reporter for the New York Daily News. Currently, she is Truthdig’s associate editor and is at work on a doctoral dissertation on celebrity and politics.

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By since1492, August 10, 2008 at 6:51 am Link to this comment

Barbara is a media whore.
Hoa binh

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By Louise, August 3, 2008 at 9:20 am Link to this comment

When I think of Barbara Walters, which isn’t very often, I think of two things.

The first real “female” power player in the industry. And someone who, in spite of an obvious speech impairment, had the determination to become successful in a career that requires a lot of speaking.

Like her or not, those are the facts and for that she should be recognised.

Plus I marvel that someone her age can still walk in heels! I had to give that up years ago! smile

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By thebeerdoctor, August 2, 2008 at 12:13 am Link to this comment

Barbara Walters proves that banality, when properly packaged can make you a multi-millionaire. The View has been so thoroughly marketed that the shows’ “cat fights” wind up on The Huffington Post. What a marvelous spectacle it is! Well paid women sitting on a stage complaining about the increased price of sporting events, or whether or not to wear stockings. There is plenty of talk about sex, boobs, bootie, and let’s not forget the fist bump.
I guess it is entertaining, in a mindless sort of way. How Ms. Walters is able to maintain her veneer as “television journalist” is the crown jewel of the whole magic act. I can think of few things just as useless, but none is more important than The View. That is why Mr. and Mrs McCain have appeared on the show, along with Mr. and Mrs. Obama, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
Inquiring minds WANT to know…

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By Sabagio Mauraeno, August 1, 2008 at 6:31 pm Link to this comment

Brittnay and Paris and Linda and all the Jennifers and Jesicas, these women are products of an “arrested childhood” that produced stunted, mixed up adults. They also have a chance to grow out of it, grow up. My problem with Ms walters is, she too had a chance to grow, become more than the “token female at the Today Show desk,” but she didn’t.  And that’s what sad and at the same time irritating, now that she’s pushing 80, that she’s still doing the same thing over and over and over again , alive but not living.

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By mackTN, August 1, 2008 at 4:46 pm Link to this comment

Barbara Walters came of age in a world that many have no real memory of, and, based on the reviews of her book, a world she has trouble describing to readers.  Walters was never supposed to be a journalist, really.  She was meant to open refrigerator doors and sell dishwashing liguid.  But just as the world was changing to admit women as professionals and blacks as people, there sat Babwa available for the great transition.  She doesn’t have the perspective yet, but she kept putting one foot ahead of the other, worked constantly, and survived into the 21st century. 

Why expect so much from her?  In the words of Harvey Dent, either you’re a hero until you live long enough to be the villain…or something.

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By stonecutter, August 1, 2008 at 3:29 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This week, when McCain compared Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, he forgot to include Barbara Walters. I lived in New York for 60 years, and can’t remember one Walters news story or interview “get” that lasted longer in my memory than the weather report. She makes Larry King seem like Ed Murrow or Mike Wallace. Her Oscar “Specials” were as penetrating as your average guy with his prostate surgically removed. She has the gravitas of Halle Berry and the journalistic bona fides of Oprah. They are two very small peas in a very large pod.

I stood next to her in the elevator of an office building 20 years ago, and believe me, she was ancient then.  She had on enough makeup to clog a storm drain. She glanced at me, to paraphrase Quint from “Jaws” when he describes the eyes of an attacking shark, with “dolls eyes, dead eyes”. I kept my distance, even in the elevator. I can understand the “appeal” of hotties like Nora O’Donnell, Campbell Brown or Katty Kay, but Barbwa WaWa. even in her prime?  Sorry, it eludes me completely. Her choice of liasons—Jeez, Roy Cohn and Alan Greenspan—is like lusting after nude pics of Eleanor Roosevelt or HRC. Same vibe.

American pop culture has its rare moments, but most of it is like fetid water in a swamp. It’s technically water, but it’ll probably killya if you drink it. Walters is like a post-modern incarnation of Norma Desmond. She still thinks she’s Salome, a female Dorian Gray disintegrating right in front of her “adoring fans”. Gilda Radner, a comic genius who tragically died way too young, nailed Walters’ essence, which is why the impression so rattled the Grande Dame of network infotainment. It wasn’t just the lisp…it was the profound vapidness, the inauthenticity, the total lack of a “there” there, the way she sat ramrod straight like a ventriloquist’s dummy, controlled by an unseen hand and monumentally grating voice. The fact that she’s been so successful on air is just another indication of the broad superficiality and masked sexual hysteria of this society, and the “bimboness” of so many TV-addicted women (if you try and tell me she has a large non-gay male following…sorry, no dice).

Apparently, they’re besotted enough to shell out $20-plus bucks for her hackneyed “book”, which reads like the “Page Six” column in the NY Post. Even money they’ll do exactly the same for “My Life as a Skank” by Britney…whenever it comes out.

Meanwhile, there is a way to avoid all this pseudo-celebrity swill…simply don’t pay attention. That is still humanly possible, believe it or not, provided your mind is still switched to ON.

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By Sabagio Mauraeno, August 1, 2008 at 3:18 pm Link to this comment

Barbara Walters,  Paris Hilton…the current crop of “tools” used to mind manage us are today, the living examples of how eroded our ability to think critically has become. Things, images, of no substance that make no real contributions to the benefit of anything or anybody, are now singled out as successful examples of what our civilization can produce. Why? Because it’s cheap and easy and profitable.

Manipulation of public taste, now manifested in the form of “empty celebrity and hollow promises of “it can happen to you” have been long standing techniques of those who rule,lead and benefit from the ability to do so.  Subliminalism was used as a tool early on by the masters of Television advertising. The hidden message that was flashed when watching Jackie Gleason was “eat more popcorn.” From the President on down we were all outraged by the crass commercialism behind the use of this new technology. We demanded and got we thought, sanctions that would put a stop to it forever and always.

Well, we know now that politicians everywhere, in democracies, theocracies, kingdoms,totalitarian countries, everywhere, would never, could never abandon a tool that proved so effective in managing and directing what we do and think. So what is the big surprise here?  Despite this massive assault on our minds from womb to tomb, like in the song,  “we do survive.”  And that’s all. In the Age of Global Warming and knowledge of its terrible consequences if we do nothing, do we really believe that the current crop of the Powers that Be, can lead us to make sacrifices needed to set aside the way we do things now to get to where we want to go, for the betterment of future generations? That those who profess to lead and make decisions in our best interests,  who control the factors of production, the sources of what we deem are the basic necessities for getting and keeping the comforts of a quality of life beyond food, shelter and other basics of the nature of mankind, are going to make the personal sacrifices needed to safe our world that will set a standard for
us all to follow?  I don’t see it happening until maybe 40 years from now when we won’t be here to see it, feel it,smell it, taste it or ...believe it.

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By TheSeditousRascal, August 1, 2008 at 11:01 am Link to this comment

Barbara Walters is to journalism is what Paris Hilton is to music…

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By Sabagio Mauraeno, August 1, 2008 at 10:31 am Link to this comment

Pioneering? Connie Chung, yes. Barbara Walters? Nay nah!

Barbara Walters comes across as “sincere” as I remember, ever since she came on board with the Today Show with Dave Garroway?

From the gitgo its been a masquerade?  She’s a gossip protected from overt criticism by her official designation, “journalist.”  But This is a woman who in an interview with Lady Bird Johnson a few months after Lyndon’s death, asked his widow how she dealt with the President’s many affairs over the years of their marriage with other women. Did she ask Jackie Kennedy the same question?  Mrs. Johnson said afterwards that “if I live to be 100, I’ll never give that woman an interview again.”  Mrs. Johnson lived to be 100.  And she didn’t.

Walters also reported, in a sincere manner, that Uri Gellar, the man who said he bent spoons solely with the power of his mind, was the real thing, that she couldn’t detect any fakery. Insightful,right? She did her homework but missed the part where the Israeli government kicked Uri out of the country for fraud.  And then there’s the Barbara who accepted an invitation by the Shah of Iran to come to Iran’s celebration of the 4000 anniversary of the reign of The Peacock Throne. She went and came back with a glowing report about what a wonderful time she had, and how much the people of Iran loved their Shah and his family.  This was about a year before the Shah left Iran under cover of darkness to go into exile when Iran became the Islamic Republic.

Harry Reasoner didn’t think much of her as a journalist or a pioneer when she joined ABC news and didn’t hide his feelings. He knew something that we didn’t at the time, and didn’t tell us.  Hugh Downs walked away from Prime Time or 20-20 when Barbara did an interview on a subject or subject matter he thought unethical and had turned down when he was offered the same opportunity. Barbara’s in her element with The View: gossip again masquerading as “the women’s perspective on current events.” Star Jones, a woman who is right up there with Barbara when it comes to self-promotion did get it right when she questioned Barbara’s integrity/honesty/questionable ethics when Ms Walters told all in her latest memoir about her affair with Senator Brooks. Why do we need to know this? Senator Brooks is an elderly man, living in retirement with his family, children and grandchildren. Why inflict this kind of hurt on his family?  Ms Walter"s still seems, at her advanced age, insecure and afraid that she wouldn’t sell any of her books if there weren’t any references to her sexual adventures with married men of celebrity.

I’m probably all wrong about this observation of Ms. Walters. I mean, all the local, state, regional and national talk show comedian/hosts have been allowing her to promote her book on their programs for the past several weeks, and these guys, Rose,  Letterman,Leno… these guys wouldn’t do it if they believed Barbara wasn’t the journalist she said she was. Would they?

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By troublesum, August 1, 2008 at 4:37 am Link to this comment

Where’s Gilda Ratner when you need her?

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By Tim Trevathan, August 1, 2008 at 4:17 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Like Kasia’s thesis on celebrity and politics, Advertising and ‘the fake success culture of celebrity accomplishment” (ie: Paris Hilton,already rich makes an internet stag flick and ends up a ‘celebrity’ based on what social value? Other than more destructive (to herself and youth culture) values, there are few redeemable qualities to this kind of celebrity culture.

        Advertising has had controversial value to the public. The general public’s attitude toward advertising has been increasingly negative over the years (Mittal, 1994 p. 1). 

Advertisers continue to extend their reach from newspapers, magazines, radio, television, billboards, bus sides, taxi roofs, wheel covers and now into public paid for spaces such as movie theaters.

The public, and children specifically, are targeted because of their susceptibility and status as a “captive audience” once in movie theaters. The trend started nationally when companies started sponsoring movies.”

Past research has shown implications of advertising having negative health implications in four significant ways;

“Physical health is cited as the vulnerability to mimic good or bad social habits based on advertising influence.

Emotional health can be affected by delivering media-imposed definitions of beauty, sexuality, maturity and problem-solving.

Advertising also plays an influential role in other emotional issues such as instant gratification.

Social health because advertising often communicates attitudes, values, beliefs and ideologies, including those of consumption, competition and materialism.

Finally, it can affect our cultural health when we observe how, when, and if certain groups of people are represented or not represented in advertising messages.” (Fox, 2001)

Americans feel assaulted by advertisements and commercials.

There are advertisements and commercials in schools, airport lounges, doctor’s offices, movie theaters, hospitals, gas stations, elevators, convenience stores, on the Internet, on fruit, on ATM’s, on garbage cans and countless other places. There are ads on beach sand and restroom walls. “I don’t know if anything is sacred anymore,” Mike Swanson, who directs ad placement for the ad agency Carmichael Lynch, told the Associated Press. (Ruskin, 2006)

This assault intensifies virtually every day. With ad budgets skyrocketing, advertising techniques inevitably become more invasive and coercive. Advertisers are engaged in a relentless battle to claim every waking moment, and what one executive called, with chilling candor, “mind share.” (Ruskin, 2006)

To this end, the book “Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion – It’s Dubious Impact on American Society” goes about differentiating the needs of people and the exploitation of consumers for marketers and advertisers gains.

A critique ensues over the straw defenses put out by the advertising and marketing crowd to say that they are only giving “the people what they want” much like a drug pusher who may chide that they only sell to a clientèle who already uses the drug they sell (Schudson, 1984 p. 237).

“Marketers do not actually seek to discover consumer needs as much as what is available among commercial choices” (Schudson, 1984 p. 235).

Two recent surveys offer conflicting reports on moviegoers’ attitudes towards movie ads.

An Arbitron survey found that two-thirds of adults and seven in 10 moviegoers between the ages of 12 and 24 “don’t mind” the ads.

But an Insightexpress survey found that 52% of those surveyed found the ads intrusive, 53% said theaters should stop showing them, and 27% said showing the commercials will cause them to go to movies less frequently.

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